CHICAGO – Exactly one hour before the Blackhawks raised their 2013 Stanley Cup championship banner to the rafters, Corey Crawford was the first player to take the ice.
Crawford clutched his goaltender stick and spotted one of a few dozen pucks that littered the frozen surface. He stickhandled for a bit, eyed the open net, and snapped a quick wrist shot.
It was that kind of night for the Hawks.
After Crawford scored the unofficial first goal of the 2013-14 season, fourth-line forward Brandon Bollig scored the first goal that counted against the Washington Capitals. It was appropriate, given that Bollig had netted as many goals as Crawford (0) in his NHL career before Tuesday.
Patrick Kane scored the Hawks’ second goal, and Brent Seabrook scored the third while – get this – the Hawks were on the power play. A sellout crowd of 22,158 fans at the United Center loved every minute, roaring and groaning at random intervals as if it were a decisive playoff game.
“There is a humble, hungry group of Blackhawks that are on your 2013-14 roster,” team president John McDonough promised fans during a pregame speech at center ice. “And Rocky [Wirtz] and I talk about this all the time. In the arena tonight, there are more than [22,000] Stanley Cup champions. I believe we’re all in this together.”
Still, every season, so-called experts warn about the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover.
It’s almost impossible, as the story goes, to win back-to-back championships in a league filled with so much parity. No team has won consecutive Stanley Cup titles since the Detroit Red Wings did so in 1997 and 1998, the latter of which marked the same year (caution: get ready to feel old) that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane celebrated their 10th birthdays.
The hangover theory has history on its side.
But that neglects the present. How can the Hawks have a hangover when they’re still buzzing?
Three years ago, the Hawks’ banner-raising ceremony served as closure to an unbelievable season. A salary-cap crunch had forced much of the roster to be disbanded in the weeks after the title, and those who were jettisoned included Antti Niemi, Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer, Andrew Ladd, Brian Campbell and the not-so-gentle giant known as Big Buff.
Not surprisingly, the reassembled Hawks struggled to jell the following season, eventually losing to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs.
This time around, the Hawks remain loaded. The dazzling pregame ceremony did not mark closure so much as a launching point toward yet another Stanley Cup chase in the spring of 2014.
Could the Hawks win three championships in five seasons? Could they go on to win a fourth? A fifth?
If you want to doubt Joel Quenneville and his mustache, go right ahead.
Toews has miles of greatness ahead of him at 25 years old, and Kane does not turn 25 until next month. A group of key players including Crawford, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Bryan Bickell, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson all are under contract for at least the next three seasons, as is Quenneville, who leads all active coaches in career wins.
Before the opening faceoff, the Hawks posed for a final team photo with the Cup in the corner of the rink. Four players lingered behind on the blue line. They were Michael Kostka, Joakim Nordstrom, Jimmy Hayes and Nikolai Khabibulin, the only players out of 23 who were not a part of the Hawks’ title run that ended in a 17-second blur on a warm night in Boston.
It was a feel-good opening to what should be another feel-good season.
One problem, though.
There’s not much space for any more banners.
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.